What if I told you that each of us need to experience pain to survive through the ups and downs in life? Some of you might brand me as pessimistic, some others might not even try to judge me as they believe I have got out of my mind and there are a very few who accept this fact. Yes! Pain indeed is the brain’s way of informing us to react when there is something wrong. Pain is nature’s way of helping us stay alive by sending warnings whenever required. The body’s reflex reaction of moving the leg when we step over a sharp pin or removing our hand away from gas stove before it hits the flame are defense mechanisms against danger. Else, the pin could send a seething flow of blood and the skin in our hand could peel off both of which surely decrease the quality of life. Until now, I have been only talking about acute pain-the type of pain that’s the result of some injury or illness that goes away on its own once the health problem is resolved. But the world presently is dominated by another type of pain that’s debilitating the quality of life of people to the extent that it results in depression and suicide as well!
Chronic Pain: Grassroot Changes in the Brain
Women generally suffer from persistent knee pain and back pain while men are more prone to neck and shoulder pain. The perfect example for explaining chronic pain might be my very own one! Some six months back, I had a small sense of unease in my right wrist and felt shooting pain when I tried to lift something not every time but at a specific angle. Though I ignored it or tried to suppress it with anti-inflammatory applications the pain worsened when I tried to play badminton or every time I carried something in my hand. On my visit to the doctor, he gave me the most depressing news that steroids are the only solution to this problem but I did not lose hope and went ahead with physical therapy and manual exercises. Nothing proved to be helpful and now, I am still suffering from the pain-the only difference is that I have minimized performing pain-aggravating chores with my right hand! It took a long time for me to realize that I am suffering from chronic pain that could last a lifetime!
Any pain that persists for more than three months is defined as chronic pain which doesn’t always originate from an injury and might persist even after the injury is healed completely. Such lingering pain is associated with physical changes in the brain at the cortical level pushing the individual to experience what’s called ‘central sensitization’ (sensations that were once normal generate intense pain now). Until now, we don’t have evident explanations as to why chronic pain attacks some people but there are studies that show that psychological and personality traits are risk factors for chronic pain conditions. If you notice, many people with chronic pain are those who suffer from an emotional imbalance in life-maybe owing to the loss of a loved one, the presence of some chronic disease or such others. These individuals learn to filter emotions and actions through the lens of pain which is mainly due to the environmental, early lifetime and epigenetic factors. It has been assumed until now that emotional disturbances can affect only the mental health of people but they can have a strong effect on the brain and pain levels too! The raging pain in turn once again affects the emotional well-being of the person.
Again, the pain experienced differs person to person. Some might be extremely tolerant to advanced pain while some others cannot bear even a simple headache. The doctor’s handles pain and prescribed meds based on how well you explain your pain. The doctor might ask you to rate pain on a scale of 0 to 10, choose different emotions to represent them or even respond with appropriate words that express your pain. Pain is subjective and no two people experience the same pain which makes it worse for a particular course of treatment. Pain is a condition that can never see the light of day in laboratory science as studying pain in animals is impossible. How can we bring about solutions without speaking with these creatures? This makes it almost impossible to study pain and come up with relevant solutions (https://psmag.com/environment/rats-cant-say-ouch).
Stopping Pain by Hook or By Crook
The first reaction from anyone when suffering from pain would be to stop it immediately either by using anti-inflammatory drugs or opioids, both of which have harmful side effects on the individual in the long term. Opioids usage is reaching dangerously new levels and its side effects have even resulted in death. With 1 in 5 adults suffering from chronic pain it has become a necessity to come to some close solution to at least minimalize its effects. While some feel pain with the same intensity that they had been experiencing for the last couple of years there are some others who have gotten used to it to such an extent that it has become a part of their lives.
Physical therapy, physiotherapy using manual techniques and machines and practice of daily exercise has been able to keep pain under control for a lot many people, has helped some immobile patients to walk a few steps and has also improved the quality of life of many. Besides these, there have been various studies on how to alleviate pain using mind techniques-after all, pain is a personification of our brain isn’t it? A new study published in a reputed journal shows mindfulness to be promising option and a powerful tool for decreasing the effects of chronic pain. It’s a type of meditation that can play an integral role in helping you reduce and cope with stress (this has an effect on how he individual perceives pain). Meditation can regulate blood pressure, heart rate and autonomic nervous system all of which have a major role on increasing or decreasing pain. Practising mindfulness also keeps the individual out of emotional anxiety and distress which are other aspects that can intensify pain.
Patients suffering from chronic pain normally don’t stop with one physician but keep going to a couple of them until they finally realize that there is no 100% cure for the pain. While a physician might try to solve the problem by dispensing pain-relieving medications there are others who try to alleviate pain by removing the emotional conflict that’s happening inside each of their patients. According to a reputed psychiatrist, chronic pain is shaped by their experience of life-their personality, environment, family and social class and can be treated by using a combination of non-addictive medication, psychological therapy and physiotherapy. Pain generally takes so much of an individual’s attention that the patient is forced to attend to its needs and, when you are attending to physical pain you have no obligation to other things simultaneously. Maybe that’s the primary reason why many people with emotional disturbances are more affected by chronic pain-the pain makes them forget their mental problems and their focus is directed more towards physical health problems. But we also have other physicians who are trying to revolutionize medicine by researching for drugs that can alleviate pain without any side effects. Only time can tell the success rate of every kind of therapy for minimizing pain!
Pain is complex. We might learn to live with it but it is better to look out for reasonable approaches when we can find a solution to the problem and improve our quality of life. Some problems are unavoidable-death or terminal illness-and we must take care to ensure that these don’t further deteriorate health by manifesting as chronic pain too!
To Cure my Chronic Pain, I had to Learn about the Links between Mind & Body: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/01/chronic-pain-links-mind-body-brain-physical
Will there Ever be a Cure for Chronic Pain? https://www.economist.com/news/2019/09/20/will-there-ever-be-a-cure-for-chronic-pain
Is Mindfulness a Promising Option for Treating Chronic Pain? https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2019/01/31/is-mindfulness-a-promising-option-for-treating-chronic-pain/#58b1c0d25008
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